"Soju!” says my buddy Ernesto.
“No, soju. What’ve you been talking about, on and on? Soju? Korean sake?
Then it clicks. ’Cause I have been going on about soju and how it’s gonna be the new sake, and how I wanted to see what the fuss was about.
“So, you had some?” I ask.
“You betcha. Up at 25th and Market.”
549 25th Street, Grant Hill
“Oh, yeah? That little BBQ place on the corner?”
“No, no,” says Nesto. “Now it’s a kind of Korean, burger-dog-sandwich, local beer-soju place. Tiny! Crowded! I had a rice bowl. Super-filling. Soju bomb helped. But you’d better like garlic. They have a thing about garlic.”
Garlic? Soju? Say no mo’. Like a shot, I’m up there, facing this little bricky corner place.
Sign reads, “Garlic Shack.” It’s got narrow seating outside. Inside is woody, arty, with plank tables, some corrugated iron, plus blackboards full of garlic sayings.
“Garlic: keeping the magic alive.”
“Garlic’s use dates back thousands of years as both a traditional medicine & a seasoning.”
Then there’s the little counter, and behind it, maybe eight taps, all local, indie beers. Good sign.
“Have you been here before?” says the gal, Anai. She and Melissa are sitting, waiting for customers. It’s around quarter of five.
“Not since the BBQ moved out.”
“We opened a year ago,” she says. Then she takes me on a tour through the menu. And just like Ernesto said, for a small place, they have an amazing array of foods. From a Korean beef rice bowl ($9) to spicy noodle soups with quirky names. “Make Me Warm” and “Make me Hot.” Nine bucks.
Then house-made hot dogs like the “Pineappleholic” ($7.50); the “Greencurryholic,” with a spicy Thai currywurst ($7.50); and the “Crabholic,” a bratwurst with soft-shelled crab ($9). Also, wraps and “steam burgers” that are “100 percent all-natural 9-oz Kobe beef. No hormones and no antibiotics ever.”
That’s a strong promise.
The burgers have names such as “I Am a Normal” ($7), “I Am Not the Only One” (vegetarian, $8), “I am a Crab” ($12), and “I am a Damn Crab” (with Kobe beef as well as soft-shelled crab, $15).
I ask for a small bucket of wet garlic fries. Just to warm up.
“The ‘wet’ means the garlic pieces are raw,” says Anai.
The fries cost $4.75 (small; large is $9.) Could have got other sides, like the seaweed salad scoop for $3.75 or $7, or Canadian poutine fries with sesame caramel sauce for $7.
Now I choose from their rotating selection of beers. Ooh. Jamul brewery. Mother Grundy Porter. Has to be named after that Mother Grundy Truck Trail east of Jamul. Seven bucks when you include da bomb: a shot of soju.
I sit at one of the window seats, where you can look down the hill to downtown almost. The fries arrive in a small bucket. My Jamul porter comes with this small plastic bowl filled with transparent liquid. Wow. Guess that’s our Korean whiskey. Twenty percent alcohol. I take a sip. Tastes a little grainy, maybe a little sweet (probably the sweet potato in there). Hmm... Not bad. Gentle.
I bomb it into the beer.
Big mistake. The soju gets lost in the dark cerveza.
I finally decide on the spicy noodle soup. “Slow-cooked spicy beef bone broth with house-made noodles, organic beef bones and roasted before [it is] slow cooked.”
I like that they make their own noodles here. You have four soup choices, MakemeWarm, MakemeHot, MakemeBigBall (with homemade smoked meatballs), and MakemeCrab (this one $12, the others are $9).
I go for the MakemeHot, because they promise its spices are pricklier. And yes, it sure warms the cockles of your heart. Plenty of spicy BBQ pork. Plus spinach, bean sprouts, green pepper, a lethal serrano pepper, and you get the pleasure of the broth getting thicker and richer and more garlicky as you work your way to the bottom.
Then...oh, man. Competition! Anai brings by this burger, going to the next table over. A lusciously evil-looking tower of jiggling badness. Yes, it’s a cheeseburger, usual fixin’s, but they’ve added a fried egg, coleslaw, some drooling wasabi mayo, and mustard. Costs $9.
Not the cheapest. But, these guys are buying organic, making their own sausages, noodles, right?
“The noodles you buy have egg yolks in them,” says this guy Danny. “Yolks are not good in a beef broth. So I make mine here, using only egg whites.”
Danny’s the chef you see through the kitchen hatch, whipping things together. Says this restaurant is his baby. He’s here seven days a week. “I’m 36. I was born in Korea, but I spent ten years in the Army here. I ended up at Camp Pendleton,” he says. “I went to culinary school. I traveled through 44 states eating at local diners, mom-and-pops, to see what local people ate and drank.”
Result is his east-west fusion eatery that is a rejection of the whole mass-production way of doing things. Local’s the word. But what’s with this “garlic” idea?
“My mom,” he says. “Diabetic. To help her, I learned about the powers of garlic. It’s amazing. That’s why I started this. I really believe in it.”
I’m also curious about these home-made hot dogs. I call Carla. “Sweetheart. You’re the hot dog gal, right? I’m bringing home a ‘Greencurryholic’ hot dog. Yes! They make the actual sausage here. Thai green currywurst!”
Costs seven bucks, but it’s a surefire winner. Carla loves hot dogs, and she’ll go to the moon for a good Thai curry.
Problem? I fall asleep on the bus home. Wake up. Leap off. Leave the danged hot dog bag behind.
The good news? We’re both going back. Carla and me. That’s not a promise. It’s a debt unpaid.
549 25th Street, Grant Hill
Hours: 11 a.m.–9 p.m. daily
Happy Hour: 2–4 p.m., Monday–Thursday. Deal: Any craft beer pint plus fries, $7
Prices: Beer-battered zucchini, $4; vegan churros, $4; wet fresh garlic fries, $4.75 or $9; Canadian poutine fries, $7; Korean beef rice bowl, $9; spicy noodle soups (e.g., MakemeHot with smoked spicy BBQ pork $9); house-made hot dogs (e.g., “Pineappleholic” $7.50; Seaweed Holic, $8; “GreencurryHolic”, $7.50); steam burgers (e.g., “I Am a Normal,” $7; “I Am Not the Only One,” vegetarian, $8; “I am a Crab,” $12
Buses 3, 5
Nearest bus stop: Market and 25th